Wales Rally GB got under way on Thursday in Llandudno, on the northern coast of Wales as the last stage of the FIA World Rally Championship. Andrew Coe, chief executive of Wales Rally GB organizer International Motor Sports, declared for the BBC News that “the drivers are tremendously excited. There are some really big names and some of the best drivers in the world.”
The highlight of this year’s WRC edition was a neck and neck battle between title-favorite Frenchman Sebastien Loeb and the Finn contender Mikko Hirvonen. The Citroen driver went into the final stage with only a slender lead ahead of Ford Abu Dhabi Team pilot. The winner of the Wales Rally GB would add 25 points to his tally which meant that things could have gone either way.
In Cardiff, rally enthusiasts took the Cardiff Castle and its surroundings by assault to see their favorites arriving at the Parc Ferme inside the castle on Friday and at St. Mary’s Street on Friday after an exhausting but thrilling run throughout Wales. The 32 nationalities represented in the rally are reflected into the spectators as they rushed to celebrate the event. Children, adults and seniors mixed together with domestic and international tourists joined the action on the streets.
A group of racing passionate ignored the cold stubborn rain and gathered on Friday evening inside the Cardiff Castle to see the battling cars returning from Northern Wales. A short buzz from a walkie-talkie and a loud voice announce the arrival of the first car. The rain washes away the mud from the carbon fiber chassis frames to reveal the scratches suffered on the rough gravel circuits.
Well equipped for the weather conditions, Dafydd Jones advises me to “look back into history” when it comes to rallying. “Always brilliant this Welsh feature of the rally,” the 53-year-old has the chance to say before two rumbling cars enter the check platform. “Tomorrow there will be a lot more things to see,” he added after the noisy cars have passed.
On Saturday evening, everybody knew that Sebastien Loeb is the WRC champion eight times in a row, setting a hard-to-break record of the motorsport world. The radiator-damaged Ford Focus RS put a dent into Hirvonen’s WRC title bid which meant that Loeb was the new champion.
Drama continued in the competition as Loeb’s Citroen DS3 WRC went on the wrong side of the road, suffering irreparable damage. Jari-Matti Latvala benefitted from this and gained a comfortable lead ahead of Loeb which eventually propelled him towards winning the Wales Rally GB, ending a long draught.
Under the clear evening sky, St. Mary Street is filling-up with enthusiastic spectators impatiently waiting for the cars to arrive. Citroen racing flags are being waved everywhere while little boys dressed in pilot costume replicas drag their fathers closer to the place where drivers will steer their cars into.
Rod Halliday is one of the fathers which brought their sons to the Rallyfest. “The show? Yeah, a good one,” he says. “There are a couple a shows on for the kids, he had a great time. I am going to see the cars tonight with my 9-year-old son,” the self-employed father from Pontypridd says while looking at his son.
A loud engine roar triggers the euphoria. Cars start arriving one by one and the street fills with loud rounds of applause, cheers and flashing lights. Drivers are revving their 300 horsepower car engines to the delight of the crowd, cranking up the atmosphere with exhaust gases. After a few words to the spectators, the pilots make the gearboxes click and the cars are off to the Cardiff Castle.
Meth Mal travelled from London to join the Rallyfest. “I’m only here for the day but I love it” is the only thing the 36 year-old has to say before rushing closer to the cars and start a frenzy of photo shooting.
Hayden Paddon is the driver who travelled the most to join the Wales Rally GB. He comes from New Zealand and managed to finish 13th. Looking tired but happy, he said: “The car performed OK, sunny weather is quite different for Wales and the roads were looking polished but I enjoyed the new stages.”
Both on the gravel and tarmac roads and on the city streets in Cardiff the action can be best described by “Whizzo” Williams’ words on the stage: “There are no breaks, everything is go go go!” While speaking about the future of motorsports, the veteran driver highlighted the importance of apprenticing as a way of passing on knowledge and experience to youngsters. With talent being appropriately nurtured, it won’t take long before that little boy dressed in a pilot costume will go on and lift a trophy; this time after running behind the wheel in the world’s most challenging and complex rally competition.